ABUJA, NIGERIA - Nearly half the people in Nigeria are women and about 20 percent of them live with a disability, according to research by a Nigerian advocacy group. Activists say many of those women face stigma and suffer injustices because of their condition, including gender-based violence. But one disabled woman is pushing back to ensure women like her have better access to healthcare and equal justice.
Eberendu Onyinyechi was barely a year old when she was struck with an illness that paralyzed both her legs.
Undeterred by her condition, she got an education, earned a linguistic degree, and now works for the Abuja government.
But like many of Nigeria's disabled women, Eberendu says she has been subjected to sexual violence.
"Many times when some of us are in a relationship, these guys tend to take advantage of us. I think sex is supposed to be something I consent to, you don't force me to do it, you don't try to use the strength of a man to try to take it. But, unfortunately, that's what many of us suffer," Eberendu said.
Women and girls with disabilities in Nigeria are three times more prone and vulnerable to gender-based violence than their able-bodied counterparts, according to a non-profit activist group.
Violence by intimate partners is the most common case. They also find it harder to seek justice because of stigma and bias associated with their condition, says Irene Patrick who heads the non-profit Disabilities Rights Advocacy Center. "Most times they're not believed," she said.
Patrick's Abuja-based group, known as DRAC, is helping women and girls with disabilities get better access to justice.
She says the situation is serious in Nigeria.
"Nobody believes that as a woman with disabilities you were raped because of the societal notion that women with disabilities are not sexually attractive, nobody can actually desire them enough to rape them. So we found that this is preventing them from getting access to justice because not only do they not want to report anymore, even when they report, nothing is done about it and in some cases they're actually ridiculed," Patrick said.
Nigeria signed its disability rights act into law about one year ago. But activists argue that ignorance, lack of access, and poverty continue to hamper progress of access to justice for Nigeria's disabled women.
Emmanuel Adedeji of the Nigerian Bar Association pledged his group's support at a recent meeting.
"I think this meeting will be an eye-opener to everyone of us to know the provisions of the laws prohibiting discrimination against persons with disabilities, which was recently passed into law after several years of ratification. The Nigerian Bar Association will be willing afterwards from today to be part of any initiative to protect the rights of persons with disabilities," Adedeji said.
Until matters improve for women with disabilities, organizations like DRAC say they will provide a safe place for them to fight for equal justice.